Thursday, September 19, 2019

Out of Liberty Review

September has been an interesting month for movies. And by that I mean there's been "IT: Chapter Two" and... well, nothing else. There's been a couple of times in the last week or so where I've had the desire to go see a matinee film or something like that, but I look at what my options are and realize that I've seen everything that I've wanted to see that's currently in theaters near me. So instead of going to see movies and writing reviews, I stayed home and was jealous of all the people who were fancy enough to go to the Toronto International Film Festival, because there's now at least 15-20 films that showed there that I am now dying to see. Now I saw this coming when I did my September preview, but still. I'm excited to get out of this September lull and into the holiday season where there are a lot more options. So while the first weekend of September had only "IT: Chapter Two," the second weekend that just passed us by gave us the option of a stripper movie in "Hustlers" and "The Goldfinch," a movie I was excited for until it got absolutely wasted at TIFF. So instead of seeing one of those two, I turned my attention to the local scene where we have "Out of Liberty," a movie about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail. Given these choices, I'd like to say I made a good decision.

Earlier in the summer when I reviewed "The Other Side of Heaven 2," I had no idea what the theater count was and thus I wrongly assumed it was only a Utah release. Turns out the movie opened in 205 theaters, which was a much wider release than I was expecting. After 12 weeks in theaters, "The Other Side of Heaven 2" has made $1.7 million, which is pretty good for a one of these smaller, local-ish Christian films. "Out of Liberty," though, only opened in 35 theaters, so this one does seem like it's actually a local film here in Utah only. Maybe a few locations outside. I do know from looking at my showtimes on IMDb that 22 of the 35 locations are here on the Wasatch Front. Where the other 13 locations are, I'm not sure. They're most likely in places like Idaho or Arizona that have a higher population of Latter-day Saints. In late July, Purdie also released "The Fighting Preacher," which started in 28 theaters and expanded into 37 theaters in its second weekend. So if you got that movie at your local theater this summer, I'm willing to bet that you also have "Out of Liberty" right now. If you don't have either, I'm guessing you'll have to wait until it comes to DVD, unless the movie catches on like wildfire. But based on early returns from this past weekend, I don't think that will be the case. 

For better or for worse, "Out of Liberty" is a movie that assumes you know all about Joseph Smith and are curious in seeing a deeper dive of what he experienced in Liberty Jail. Some of these Latter-day Saint films at least make an attempt to appeal to a non-member audience. Whether or not that effort is successful is a different story, but at least there's an attempt. "Out of Liberty" makes no attempt. If you're not an active member of the Church and/or you don't care about Joseph Smith, this is not your movie. That's my disclaimer right now. And that's a bit of an interesting choice given that Garrett Batty is the director here. His previous two films, "The Saratov Approach" and "Freetown" were movies that had at least some sort of appeal to the general public. I think it was Larry King who said that "The Saratov Approach" was a great little independent film. Now I don't think "Out of Liberty" going a different approach is a bad thing by any means. It's just a different approach. And in many cases, having a very specific, niche audience can be a great thing. You don't have to worry about pandering to people outside your target audience. You can simply give them exactly what they want. If they're pleased with the result, then you did your job.

I didn't pay too close attention to the advertising of this movie. I was very well aware that it existed because they gave it a very good local push. Because of that, I knew this was a movie about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail. I just didn't know what the specific angle was and I was curious to see what Garrett Batty brought to the table. The thing is, I'm very well aware of this story. It almost goes without saying that Joseph's Smith story has been told a lot of times. Just about every time it has been told, Liberty Jail is included in some form because it was a key moment in his history. Doctrine & Covenants sections 121 and 122 are some of the most powerful and most quoted scriptures in the Church's library of scriptures. Whenever they are quoted, often a brief explanation of the Liberty Jail context is also given. So in my mind, if we're going to revisit this in the form of a film, there's got to be a specific purpose as to why we're revisiting it for the upteenth time. That's why I was more curious than outright excited for this experience. And I have to be honest here. The final result has me slightly conflicted. I do think Garrett Batty is a good filmmaker and because of that, there's a lot of things here that work quite well. It just didn't resonate with me as much as it should've.

If you want to go into this movie completely blind as to what it's all about, feel free to exit this review and come back after you watch. If you don't mind a bit of an exploration of this, then proceed. With that out of the way, the specific angle here is, simply put, Liberty Jail. All of it. Nothing more, nothing less. We don't get a recap of who Joseph Smith is. There's also very little information given about the Saints' situation in Missouri. We don't even get to see why Joseph Smith and company got put in Liberty Jail. There's a few words of text that briefly describe the situation, but no visuals. After said text, the movie starts with them two months into their jail sentence, the month being December 1838. The introductory scene is of them formulating a plan to escape because they feel like that's their only way out. That plan fails. Because, you know, they ending up being there for six months. Following that, the movie goes in a very straight-lined narrative, giving highlights of their time in jail in four different sections: January, February, March and April. No, the movie doesn't have a nice and pretty three-act structure, thus this ends up as quite the tricky undertaking. Most of the time that Joseph and company were in Liberty Jail, it was cold, dark and lonely with nothing happening.   

That's why I felt conflicted here. While there was a lot going on during this time period, if the decision is made to have the point of view strictly from Liberty Jail only, what do you do to make that story interesting? Yeah, they did a great job of setting the scene for Liberty Jail. It was cold and chilling. There were definitely some great individual moments. But when I had to stay in jail with them for the whole movie, I started to get claustrophobic a bit. It felt like I got thrown in jail for two hours with them and it began to be uncomfortable. It's just hard to maintain a great flow when you decide to handcuff yourself to just one point of view. And given that I'm well familiar with the story, I think it would've added to the emotion to see what the saints were going through while Joseph was stuck in prison. The events right before Joseph got thrown in Liberty Jail were emotional and heart-wrenching. The continued extermination order while Joseph was in prison was tragic. Pair all these events up and you have an excellent movie. With what we got instead, we feel bad for Joseph because he's cold and miserable. In reality, he was mostly sad about what the saints were going through and the fact that he could do nothing to help them given that he was stuck in this jail all winter.

Yet we don't get to see any of that. Instead, we get loaded with constant exposition the entire movie and that's just not as effective as seeing what's going on. That's why whenever these events have been portrayed in various movies, we do get to witness the full scope of what's happening from every angle. And I don't think this decision was made due to budget constraints. Batty's previous two movies have been fairly successful. I just think he wanted to tell a more constrained, personal story with this, thus giving us a different look at this then what we've had in the past. And I will say that does make this unique in the large library of movies based on Church history, so I give him points there. I just don't know if unique is always the best. I mean, when Liberty Jail is portrayed, it's never the focus point of the entire film and I think there's a good reason for that. It's just a bit exhausting when we zoom in and spend the whole movie there. It gets the point across just fine in 20-30 minutes as a part of something bigger in scope. And if I'm being honest, if I'm ever in the mood to dive into some Church history via film, I don't know how often I'm going to turn to this one when something like "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" is available instead.

All that said, this review has been a lot more negative than I initially intended it to be. I just walked out in a bit of a conflicted manner and I've used this review to get to the bottom of what I've been feeling. Since I feel I've gotten that point across just fine, if we put aside the narrative structure of the film, there is a lot of positive moments in this movie. Despite this being about Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith is actually almost a supporting character in the film. There's a lot of focus around the jailer Samuel Tillery, who is played by Jasen Wade, who is definitely the lead in the film. He's the name they have advertised on all of the posters and is the one who comes up first in the end credits. And he has a solid arc in the film. He's trying to be this stern jailer so that the leaders of county and state will be happy with him, but he also fights hard to protect all of his prisoners from the angry mobs that constantly try to come and take justice into their own hands. He's bound and determined to keep all of them safe. There's some good, solid character moments with him. And if you don't remember off hand exactly how Joseph got out of Liberty Jail, I won't give that away, but it makes for an excellent moment that leaves you with all warm and fuzzy inside.

The movie's soundtrack is also quite excellent. When moments of tension happened, I was successfully on the edge of my seat. Even though I know that they all stayed in Liberty Jail until April, their attempted escapes were framed and executed quite well. And all of the acting was solid. Now if we're going back to the nitpicky side of things, I do have to say that the actor who played Joseph Smith looked nothing like him. It made me laugh when the whole group stood up and Joseph Smith was short and chubby. I don't know how tall Brandon Ray Oliver is, but he looked like he was only 5'6" or 5'7" while I think Joseph was closer to 6'2" or something like that. So if we're going to get a random, non-member actor to play Joseph, why not cast someone who looks more like him? That said, he did a great job of portraying Joseph in the most honest and respectful way, so I appreciated that. And we also had a lot of other great supporting cast members, including Garrett Batty bringing back Corbin Allred from "The Saratov Approach" to play Porter Rockwell. Corbin Allred always gets into his roles and it's fun to watch him. And without saying more than I should, if you've been to the temple recently, you'll know exactly who Corbin Allred is when you see him. 

Some other quick final thoughts. Again, if you are unfamiliar with Church history, some of the drama that happens won't have as strong of an effect. The main antagonist in the film is a mob member who is very angry about certain events that happened at the Battle of Crooked River. If that battle rings no bells, you're going to be at a disadvantage. Also, Alexander Doniphan plays a significant role in this. And if that name doesn't ring a bell, then you're also at a disadvantage because the movie assumes you already know him and doesn't bother explaining. If you're watching this at your home, you have the advantage of being able to pause and go over that. But if you're watching it in theaters, the movie has the potential to lose you. That's why I said earlier that if you're not an active member of the Church, this movie is probably not for you. Given that I am in the target audience, I personally wasn't bothered, but again it's worth noting. All in all, this movie does have plenty of great moments. It's not preachy, but it does leave you with enough of a spiritual high that I imagine most people won't even think of all things that I brought up here. I don't think it's a movie you need to rush out to see in theaters, but I do think it's worth a watch at some point. My grade here is a 7/10.

No comments:

Post a Comment